Earlier this year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave a speech to the annual gathering of liberal activists known as NetRoots Nation, where she made clear that her brand of progressive politics, not the more centrist brand practiced by President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, was the core of the Democratic identity.
"A few weeks ago, I saw an op-ed in the New York Times from a so-called Democratic strategist titled, “Back to the Center, Democrats.”
It was all about how we have to stop caring about, quote, “identity politics” and stop waging, quote, “class warfare.” Apparently, the path forward is to go back to locking up non-violent drug offenders and ripping more holes in our economic safety net…..the Democratic Party isn’t going back to the days of welfare reform and the crime bill. It is NOT going to happen.
We are not the gate crashers of today’s Democratic Party. We are not a wing of today’s Democratic Party.
We are the heart and soul of today’s Democratic Party."
- Elizabeth Warren, August 2017
The New York Times op-ed Warren was referring to — “Back to the Center, Democrats,” was co-authored by Mark Penn, pollster to the Clintons for much of their political careers. In it, Penn laments the Democrats' leftward shift on “political correctness, transgender bathroom issues and policies offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland” that has alienated the working-class voters who once were the backbone of the Democratic coalition. In order to win back those voters, says Penn, “they need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility.”
The latest data from the Pew Research Center, proves both Penn and Warren correct. Democrats have moved dramatically leftward since the 1990s on issues like the social safety net, immigration, and race relations. On those issues, the so-called Warren wing represents the mainstream of Democratic opinion.
But, Penn is also correct in arguing that white, older working class Americans are not coming along for the ride. However, it’s also clear that it’s going to be very difficult for a Democrat to win the nomination of his/her party on anything but the Warren platform.
The welfare bill that Warren derisively refers to in her speech was signed into law by Democratic president Bill Clinton. At that time, according to Pew data, Democrats were pretty evenly divided on their views of the social safety net. From 1994 to 1996, a bare majority or plurality of Democrats agreed that “poor people in this country have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.” But, anywhere from 37 percent to 45 percent of Democrats over that time period agreed that “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
By 2004, however, more than two-thirds of Democrats (67 percent), agreed with the “poor people have hard lives” statement. It stayed in this high 60’s range until this summer when it jumped to 78 percent.
On the issue of economic inequality there is literally almost 100 percent agreement among Democrats (OK, it’s 93 percent) that this issue is a “very big or moderately big” problem. Among Republicans it is a large, but not as universal, 69 percent.
Just 49 percent of Democrats think that “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard,” while the other 49 percent believe that “hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.” In the 1990s, Democrats were not as sour on this traditional “American Dream/up from the bootstraps” mentality. In 1994, for example, 65 percent of Democrats believed the “willing to work hard” message versus just 33 percent who said hard work was no guarantee of success.
As for the issue of what Penn calls “identity politics,” Democrats’ views on race have shifted dramatically over the last 23 years. In 1994, just 39 percent of Democrats said that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days,” while 53 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement that “blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.” From 1994 until 2015, Democrats who viewed the lack of progress for blacks as a product of discrimination were outnumbered by those who said it was basically blacks’ own fault. By 2015, however, a majority (50 percent) pegged discrimination as the culprit. By the summer of 2017, the discrimination number shot up 14 points to 64 percent.
At the start of the Obama era, 57 percent of Democrats said that the country should continue to make changes to give blacks equal rights with whites. By 2017, that number had rocketed up 24 points to 81 percent. Why such big movement, so quickly? The percent of white and Hispanic Democrats who wanted to see more changes to racial equality, which was slowly climbing from 2009 to 2014, jumped dramatically in 2015 to 2017. In 2014, 57 percent of white Democrats wanted to see more changes to give blacks and whites equal rights. It was 80 percent in 2017. The support from Hispanic Democrats went from 59 percent in 2014 to 76 percent in 2017.
Democrats weren’t always as willing to embrace immigrants as positive contributors to the country. From 1994 until 1996, a majority of Democrats agreed with the statement that immigrants “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” In fact, Democrats and Republicans were aligned on this sentiment for much of the 1990s. It wasn’t until 1999 that more Democrats believed that “immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” than believed immigrants were a drain on U.S. resources. But, it wasn’t until 2010, when a majority of Democrats (54 percent) saw immigrants in a positive light. That sentiment has only intensified since. In 2017, 62 percent of Democrats saw immigrants as an asset instead of a burden.
Yet, as Democrats have shifted leftward on many of these issues, as Penn suggests in his op-ed, they’ve left some of their once traditional base behind. While just 28 percent of Democrats agree that “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition,” almost 60 percent of adults with only a high school degree, 54 percent of whites and 58 percent of those over 65 agree.
On the safety net question, Americans of all races have become more sympathetic to the argument that government benefits aren’t going far enough to help poor people live decent lives. Still, white voters are less inclined to believe this than black or Hispanic Americans. Seventy-six percent of black voters, 60 percent of Hispanic voters but only 47 percent of white voters agree that “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.”
The Pew data also throws cold water on Penn’s wistfulness for a time of bi-partisan deal making, especially on social issues. From 1994 to 1999 on average, 59 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats agreed that “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without having to do anything”; a 19-point gap. By 2017, that gap had grown to 47 points with just 18 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans agreeing with this sentiment. There’s no middle ground to plow.
During the Clinton era there was also a smaller partisan gap on the question of structural racism in this country. Back in the 1990s, 20 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of Democrats, on average, agreed that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead.” Today, that gap has ballooned to 50 points, with 64 percent of Democrats agreeing with that statement to just 14 percent of Republicans.
Talk to most Democratic strategists these days and you hear a lot of frustration about a lack of a compelling or cohesive Democratic message or narrative. This Pew data, however, gives us a pretty good idea of where the core values of the party lie. And, these values have moved dramatically left since the 1990s. Whether these positions are winners in a general election (as Penn worries), is another debate all together. But, a Democrat who wants to win the 2020 nomination has to speak as forcefully on structural racism as they do on economic inequality. The base is passionate - and unified - about both.
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